U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback watch as migrants try to enter an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuna Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 19, 2021.

U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback watch as migrants try to enter an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuna Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 19, 2021. Paul Ratje/Getty Images

Border Patrol Agents Are Cleared of Striking Migrants, But Still Face Discipline for Their Harsh Actions

Four agents are facing punishment after a much publicized incident last year.

Several Border Patrol agents acted inappropriately and could face discipline following their harsh tactics as a group of mostly Haitian migrants crossed into the United States last year, though an internal investigation released Friday cleared the employees of physically striking any of the individuals. 

The Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility report took issue with the actions of some individual agents, but also blamed agency management for poor control and communication. The investigation followed an incident last September in Del Rio, Texas, where a group of mostly Haitian immigrants attempted to gain access into the United States. The episode caused a nationwide uproar after dramatic photos appeared to show Border Patrol personnel on horseback forcefully using their reins to push back migrants crossing the Rio Grande. 

The report found agents did not use their reins in that manner, instead only twirling them back and forth to control their horses. No evidence showed migrants were struck by reins or that anyone was forced to return to Mexico or denied entry into the U.S. Still, as a result of the investigation CBP launched new oversight of its Horse Patrol Units, requiring more training and creating a stricter set of criteria for their deployment. 

CBP management displayed a lack of command control and failed to provide adequate policy guidance, OPR found in its report. Border Patrol opted to work with the Texas’ Department of Public Safety on the operation, though OPR said that decision “directly conflicted with U.S. Border Patrol operational objectives.” Some agents use force or the threat of force to drive migrants back toward the border, the report found. Border Patrol at no time was intending to prevent migrants from crossing the Rio Grande River in either direction, but some agents still did so for a 15-minute stretch on the day of the incident in question. 

Those actions caused OPR to refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, which ultimately declined to prosecute. 

In disclosing the results of the investigation, CBP noted the incident took place as Border Patrol was handling an unprecedented uptick in migration in Del Rio and it eventually processed more than 30,000 migrants who had made the crossing to an encampment in the area. Agents faced “extraordinary challenges,” the agency said. 

“The report showed there were failures to make good decisions at multiple levels of the organization,” said CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus. “Failures to maintain command and control over Horse Patrol Units, lack of appropriate policies and training, and the overall chaotic nature of the situation at Del Rio at the time contributed to the incident. Several agents engaged in unprofessional or dangerous behavior, including one instance in which an agent used denigrating and offensive language.”

Following the report, CBP appointed a discipline review board that recommended punishment for four agents. The exact level of disciplinary action is still being sorted through the established process, but the agency vowed to make the results public. CBP also said it would review its disciplinary process going forward. 

One agent moved his horse in a manner that put a young migrant child in danger, OPR said, and yelled at another individual, “​​Hey! You use your women? This is why your country’s shit, you use your women for this.”

The union representing Border Patrol agents and some other groups condemned President Biden, Vice President Harris and other officials for their comments last year criticizing the employees’ actions, saying they had rushed to judgment and biased the investigation. Biden had called the actions “outrageous” and vowed that “those people will pay.”

CBP is in the midst of clearing up its incident command practices during large-scale operations and will boost training to ensure local management knows how to respond to various contingencies. Local supervisors will face new requirements to assess field conditions and potential risks before approving an operation. The agency said it would invest “significant resources” to better prepare for mass migration events to prevent “situations which contributed to these events.” It will prohibit horse rein twirling as a crowd control tactic. 

Magnus stressed that most CBP employees acted properly under difficult circumstances.

“As we focus on what went wrong, it’s important to note the vast majority of Border Patrol Agents and U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel acted with honor and integrity and provided an unprecedented response to the situation in Del Rio—fulfilling operational and processing needs and going above and beyond to provide humanitarian aid and keep people safe,” the CBP chief said. “I am grateful for and proud of their work.”